Our beautiful 'edgelands': A dark light on the edge of town
The half-rural, half-urban nothingness that surrounds our cities is often seen as a blight but not to poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts...
Thursday 17 February 2011
Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where ruderal shrub plants familiar here since the last ice sheets retreated have found a way to live with each successive wave of new arrivals; places where the city's dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.
In the English imagination, the great escape might go something like this: you get into your car, merge into traffic and join a busy motorway. After an hour or two, you leave at the correct junction and join an A-road, which you follow for a while, before turning off on to smaller, quieter roads that elide into narrow lanes. Eventually, the lane dips and climbs through wooded hollows, affording sudden views as it follows the line of a ridge, then descends to a track where an ivy-clad cottage waits; a light burning in its window. The key is under the mat. You notice the cottage has a name rather than a number ("Albion"). You let yourself in to its cool, wainscoted hallway, where a clock ticks and time runs backwards.
For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.
Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word "edgelands". If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have "edge". We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England's edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas. In English we have an abundance of words to account for the variety of landscapes on our doorstep; in our built environment.
Hopefully, we can help introduce one more into circulation. So much might depend on being able to see the edgelands. Giving them a name might help, because up until now they have been without any signifier, an incomprehensible swathe we pass through without regarding; untranslated landscape. And edgelands, by and large, are not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or as a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities. Edgelands are part of the gravitational field of all our larger urban areas; a texture we build up speed to escape, as we hurry towards the countryside; the distant wilderness. Everyone knows – after a sentence or two of explanation – their local version of the territories defined by this word "edgelands".
But few people know them well, let alone appreciate them. The book we wrote together is an attempt to celebrate these places; to break out of the duality of rural and urban landscape writing; to explore these unobserved parts of our shared landscape as places of possibility, mystery, beauty.
The edgelands are a complex landscape; a debatable zone, constantly reinventing themselves as economic and social tides come in and out. If parts of remote rural Britain feel timeless, then the edgelands feel anything but. Revisit an edgelands site you haven't seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements. Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands that any writing about these landscapes is a snapshot. There is no definitive description of the edgelands of Swindon or Wolverhampton – only an attempt to celebrate and evoke them at one particular time.
Time and again, we found a place that is as difficult to pin down and define as poetry, but like poetry, you'd know it when you saw it. It often contained decay and stasis, but could also be dynamic and deeply mysterious. Edgelands are always on the move.
In our own lifetimes, we've noticed how they have changed, largely as a result of the big push for the motorways and the rise of out-of-town shopping, as retailers shifted their operations to the huge floor space and parking opportunities available on the margins of our cities.
Such developments tend to perpetuate further development, as infrastructure forms its busy threads of connective tissue, and the course of existing roads is altered, like light bending towards a black hole.
The rudely functional big sheds of retail, their battleship greys festooned with the primary colours of brand names and logos, were largely unknown to us thirty-odd years ago, as were the reinvented spaces of the outlet village. We remembered a kind of Arcadia. The Lancashire edgelands we explored and played in as children were formed in some of the wider spaces of dereliction and waste left behind in the aftermath of mass industrialisation. Visiting Lancashire a generation earlier in the Thirties, JB Priestley had written: "Between Manchester and Bolton the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there."
As we grew up, the chimneys came down, the slag and spoil heaps were shifted or landscaped and the lay of the land had begun to appear less raw than it had done to another Thirties visitor, George Orwell. In this cooling wake, a less apocalyptically ugly landscape was emerging, haphazardly, beyond the edges of our towns and cities, which themselves were growing outwards in the post-war rush to throw up cheap, high-density housing. But it was a new landscape that made no sense, one with no obvious artistic or literary analogue, no rhyme or reason.
At their most unruly and chaotic, edgelands make a great deal of our official wilderness seem like the enshrined, ecologically arrested, controlled garden space it really is.
Children and teenagers, as well as lawbreakers, have seemed to feel especially at home in them, the former because they have yet to establish a sense of taste and boundaries and have instinctively treated their jungle spaces as a vast playground; the latter because nobody is looking. Sometimes the edgelands are written off as part of the urban (or suburban) human landscape that has to be escaped, or transcended, in order to discover true solitude in the wilds of northern Scotland, or on the fringes of our island archipelago.
At other times – as in the work of some so-called psychogeographers – they are merely a backdrop for bleak observations on the mess we humans have made of our lives, landscapes, politics and each other. In our view, both these "schools" run the same risk – using the edgelands as a shortcut to nihilism. Most of our cities will contain wastelands just like this, either lying completely fallow or in the process of being redeveloped.
It's always a surprise, walking along a busy street, to find a gap in the shiny advertising hoardings or a bent-back sheet of corrugated iron which affords a view on to an open wasteland carpeted with flowers in summer, or the archaeological earthworks of new building work where foundations are being laid.
The city – suddenly – has a new scale; an underness and overness – and the eye is overwhelmed.
The journey to a high moor or heath in search of wilderness and communion with nature involves a slow readjustment in terms of scale and space, but a city wasteland is all the more mysterious for the manner of our encounter with it: the imagination does the travelling.
An edited extract from "Edgelands: Journeys Into England's True Wilderness" published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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